Shuffle: The Cleveland Orchestra's New Opera Blends a Hypnotic Score with High-Tech Imagery

Apr 27, 2017

The Cleveland Orchestra has created a box-like set with fog and lighting for Pelléas and Mélisande
Credit The Cleveland Orchestra

Opera has been going more high tech in recent years to create an immersive experience and bring in new audiences. The Cleveland Orchestra next week stages an intricate production of "Pelléas and Mélisande."

For this week’s Shuffle, Plain Dealer classical music critic Zach Lewis says the orchestra is taking a much different approach to opera: 

Lewis says "Pelléas and Mélisande" is an opera that's rarely attempted live.

"It conjures this timeless world that is daunting to think about staging," Lewis says. "It’s Debussy, so it keeps with an impressionistic world that’s very vague. I think of mist with one castle way off in the far distance."

"Opera is a wonderful entry point for people who are new to classical music."

To accomplish the intricate performance, the orchestra tapped director Yuval Sharon, who staged "The Cunning Little Vixen" in 2014. "That was also very high tech, with a large screen with heads popping through holes," Lewis says. 

Sharon took a similar approach for "Pelléas and Mélisande."

"There will be a box on the stage that can they can control. There will be people inside with smoke swirling and individual panels can be made opaque or transparent at the flip of a switch. The thought of that is very alluring," Lewis says. 

"It’s an interesting way to think about opera in this high tech world that we’re in now and the future of opera in the 21st century."

A love for opera
Lewis says the Cleveland Orchestra and director Franz Welser-Möst love the opportunity to stage operas.

"Opera is how he came up in the musical world. He’s very well-connected and has a real knack for it. He loves these large works that have deep meaning that he can dive into."

Demand is high and growing
Lewis says opera is growing in popularity in Northeast Ohio, and, as a result, production companies like the Cleveland Opera Theater are trying to reach new audiences. 

"They’ve released over 1,000 free tickets for students for their two performances of  "The Marriage of Figaro" this weekend. That’s like half of their house."

"If you thank about it, opera is a wonderful entry point for people who are new to classical music. Because there’s a story, the acting, the costumes and the lighting and the drama…so many hooks."